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Norwegian Wood (No, not the song by Beatles, but the book by Murakami)

This book has became larger than life for me, at least for the past 6 months. I have read so much rave reviews about it that I was afraid to read it, and even more afraid that I end up feeling shattered if I don’t like it.

“Save the best for the last”, I said to myself. So I read this as the final book of the J-Lit challenge 4.

When Toru Watanabe, a 37-year-old business man, hears his first love’s favourite Beatles song he is transported back 20 years to his college days in Tokyo.

Kizuki and Naoko grew up together and are lovers. Kizuki is Toru’s best friend. When Kizuki finally decided to end his life, bonded by a common friend, Toru got involved with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko.

We soon discover that Naoko is not right in the head and the longest chapter, chapter 6 (page 118 to 219) was spent describing the life at the self-sustained Sanatorium in a secluded forest, where Toru paid Naoko a visit and met Naoko’s roommate, Reiko. This self contained world in Sanatorium bears the Murakami hallmark of the sealed-off, safe, imaginary and nostalgic world that happens in the mind or the memories, but because this is his most grounded novel ever written, it is a sanatorium in its physical and substantial form.

When Toru got back to his “real” life, a bubbly and erratic girl called Midori Kobayashi intruded Toru’s solitude life and Toru found himself falling in love with Midori.

Because I read so many of Murakami’s novels, trademark of his ideas borrowed from his other novels, or rather many later novels ideas borrow from Norwegian Wood (since this is published earlier) is evident. There are talks about food, record store, Western music and novels, sanctuary of the mind, a love triangle (you will find this in short story titled “Honey Pie” in Murakami’s After the Quake), sex and there are lots of it in this one.

I read many reviews about the book, but none prepare me for the graphical sex that is depicted in this book. I also didn’t know the central theme about the book was about mental illness and dealing with grief.

The intensity of love and desire are portrayed beautifully in this novel. The passion and impulse of young love draws us back to the days we might have our heart beating the fastest, kisses that lingers on our mind the longest, the words of love that we remembered eternally. Toru holds on to his love for Naoko and pinning for her recovery from mental illness prevent him from moving on with his life. From the very beginning, even with the appearance of Midori, I always know who Toru loves best. There was never any doubt. I see the core message of the book as one that reminds us to let go of the pain and loss and forge forward in life with courage, because it is easy to die, but living is hard.

Hey there, Kizuki, I thought. Unlike you, I’ve chosen to live – and to live the best I know how. Sure it was hard for you. What the hell, it’s hard for me. Really hard. And all because you killed yourself and left Naoko behind. – Toru page 327

And that Love and memories can be preserved, but it shouldn’t maim someone for life.

I came out of the book feeling funny about it. I really like it, but I didn’t love it. There were moments of brilliance but it was not sustain throughout. Almost anyone I talk to love Murakami novels, including myself, I think it is because this book is so different from his other novels that it stood out for me.

Some of favourite passages from the book:

Once long ago, when I was still young, when the memories were far more vivid than they are now, I often tried to write about her. But I couldn’t produce a line. Everything was too sharp and clear, so that I could never tell where to start – the way a map that shows too much can sometimes be useless. Now, though, I realise that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts. The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her. – Toru page 10

“Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens to be the way I’m made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.” ~ Toru Watanabe

“Life doesn’t require ideals. It requires standards of action.”  Said Nagasawa.
“What is the ‘standard of action’ in your life?” Toru asked.
“To be a gentleman”.
“A gentleman? What does it mean to be a gentleman? How do you define it?” Toru asked.
A gentleman is someone who does not what he wants to do but what he should do.” – Nagasawa page 71

What makes us normal is to know that we’re not normal – Reiko page 195

“All of us are imperfect human beings living in an imperfect world. We don’t live with the mechanical precision of a bank account or by measuring all our lines and angles with rulers and protractors.” ~ Reiko Ishida

I wrote a huge number of letters that spring: one a week to Naoko, several to Reiko, and several more to Midori. I wrote letters in lecture hall, I wrote letters at my desk at home with sea gull on my lap, I wrote letters at empty tables at home with Seagull on my lap, I wrote letters at empty tables during my breaks at the Italian restaurant. It was as if I were writing letters to hold together pieces of my crumbling life. – Toru page 341

My verdict: 4.5/5

What I like most about the book: Toru Watanabe. He is so compliance, easy going and comfortable to be with. The book is very readable. One that I would like to re-read. Although Murakami said it is not autobiographical, but I can’t shake off the feeling that many things in the book may be autobiographical.

What I like least about the book: I felt uncomfortable in places. Racy, some totally unnecessary; and why does Reiko Ishida has to be this involved with Toru??! Otherwise the book would have been perfect.

Paperback. [Vintage, 2003, originally published 1987],[387 pages],[Own book], Finished reading at: 31st January 2011. Translated by Jay Rubin.

The movie will be launched in the UK this March 2011, I’ll watch it.

Here’s what director Tranh Anh Hung says about it:

“When I read the book, I really had this intuition that it was possible to make a film out of it,” Tran said. “And then, when you start working on it, everything that’s left is fear – fear of not being able to do it.”

Other reviews:

Matt (A guy’s moleskine notebook)
Bookie Mee (pre-blogging days – short review)
Stu (Winston’s Dad)
Lucybird’s Book Blog
Inverarity is not a Scottish Village
Astrid paramita (short review – she finished the book same day as I did).
Writer on Writers

Did I miss out yours? Let me know and I’ll add it in.

Norwegian Wood (ノルウェイの森 Noruwei no Mori) is published in 1987. 24 years and is included in Waterstone’s special edition of Vintage Classics. Murakami adapted the first section of the novel from an earlier short story, “Firefly.” The story was subsequently included in the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. The novel is set in Tokyo during the late 1960s, a time when Japanese students, like those of many other nations, were protesting against the established order.

Norwegian Wood has been translated into English twice. The first was by Alfred Birnbaum (who translated many of Murakami’s earlier novels) and was published in 1989 in Japan by Kodansha as part of the Kodansha English Library series. Like other books in this pocket-sized series, the English text was intended for Japanese students of English, and even featured an appendix listing the Japanese text for key English phrases encountered in the novel. Notably, this edition kept the two-volume division of the original Japanese version and its color scheme — the first volume having a red cover, the second green (the first UK edition in 2000 would also keep this division and appearance). This earlier translation has been discontinued in Japan.

The second translation, by Jay Rubin, is the authorized version for publication outside Japan and was first published in 2000 by Harvill Press in the UK, and Vintage International in the USA.

The two translations differ somewhat. Of note, there are some differences in nicknames: Toru’s roommate, for example, is called “Kamikaze” in the Birnbaum translation, and “Storm Trooper” in the Rubin translation.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


29 thoughts on “Norwegian Wood (No, not the song by Beatles, but the book by Murakami)

  1. I love the sub text you included – giving the back ground and publishing information on the book and all the wonderful covers… 🙂 Thank you. Very interesing… translator information and version. I just eat this stuff up.

    However – I did skip the body, and will be back by to read it after I complete the book, not that you have included spoilers.. I just like to keep my mind very blank for books I desire to read Those I am not so sure of I just jump right in.

    Posted by Shellie | January 31, 2011, 2:42 pm
    • Shellie, I understand what you mean. The review of the book popped up on my radar multiple times and I skimmed read them, so that I get to experience the surprise of the twists and turns of the story. Boy, was I surprised!! 🙂

      Besides reading a book, I like to know why the author writes it, why motivates him to write it, and how the publishing world and movie director think about it etc etc… it just gives a book the extra dimensions that are required to appreciate it a little bit more. Thanks for the kind words Shellie! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | January 31, 2011, 4:28 pm
  2. I can’t imagine the film being anywhere near as good as the book, but I am interested to see what they do with it. I also love the snippets about the translation differences you’ve provided. Thanks!

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | January 31, 2011, 4:40 pm
    • Jackie, I expect the movie to give me the visual reinforcement of what I imagined after reading the book. I saw Rinko Kikuchi in the movie Babel which starred Brad Pitt and Emma Thompson and was aghast how bold she is in her portrayal of a mute, frustrated young Japanese girl. So it would be interesting to see how she’s like as Naoko.

      I found the liberty taken by the translators a bit surprising, if not off-putting. 🙂 I expect the translators to stay true to what Murakami has written. What do you think?

      Posted by JoV | January 31, 2011, 6:06 pm
  3. Like you, I’ve read mixed thoughts on this book, so I’ve been thinking it should not be my next Murakami. That actually works since I don’t own it, but have two other Murakamis in my TBR pile… I do love how “out there” his plots are – his imagination dazzles me! But I do agree that he is not an author that I associate with gratuitous/explicit sex!

    Posted by Steph | January 31, 2011, 4:50 pm
    • Steph, hi! Where have you been Steph? I love all your knitwears! Funny that I read only good thoughts about this book. Which two of his books did you own in your TBR pile?
      On the contrary, I associate Murakami with gratuitous sex (after reading 7 of his novels), I just didn’t think it was soooo… explicit in this one! 🙂

      Posted by JoV | January 31, 2011, 6:09 pm
  4. I really like your review and agree with the excerpts you chose; they are really beautiful! I am re-reading Norwegian Wood for the Murakami challenge, and am looking forward to doing so. This particular book made a really deep impression on me, part of me is afraid that I won’t enjoy his other books as much. Silly, isn’t it? 🙂 (Er, apparently the movie is already in the theaters in NL, better watch it soon…)

    Posted by Chinoiseries | January 31, 2011, 7:55 pm
    • Chinoiseries, NL is early in airing the movie. I have 2 little boys who can’t sit still and there is no way they are going to watch something which is probably PG15 rated! So I’ll have to wait for the DVD. 😦 His other books are very different. If you love Norwegian Wood, you will like Sputnik Sweetheart or South of the Border, West of the Sun (ok this last one is a gut feel, I have yet to read it) and his short stories collections.

      The excerpts are good isn’t it? I like them a lot too! 😀

      Posted by JoV | January 31, 2011, 9:26 pm
  5. *possible spoilers* I thought this book was imperfect too, but it stays with me for a long time. I completely agree with what you disliked about the book. I thought Reiko scene at the end was silly (and yes otherwise it would’ve been perfect!). Also the scene with Naoko in the field with Toru.. geez I can never shake that off my mind! Then there’s the part where Naoko and Toru first did it (this time I remember it in a good way). “The saddest orgasm I’ve ever heard in my life” is still fresh on my mind :). Vivid, heartbreaking scene. In fact the whole book is quite heartbreaking. Considering I read this book in 2007 and how much I remember, Norwegian Wood is really special in its own way.

    ps: Can’t wait to see the movie!

    Posted by mee | January 31, 2011, 10:28 pm
    • Mee, I thought when Naoko and Toru’s first was something beautiful they had together. So I wasn’t oppose to that. It was heartbreaking to know at the end that Naoko wasn’t all that into Toru. That made me feel really sad. I do agree besides all my ranting, the book, like you said, is really special in its own way.

      Looking at the scene of Reiko in a different way, perhaps Toru is trying to capture the remnants of Naoko. But it is still very silly anyway.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mee. 😉

      Posted by JoV | February 1, 2011, 12:43 am
  6. I think you have to be careful with the sex stuff as it’s set in a different time and a different culture, and the attitudes to sex are not the same as ours may be. J-Lit is a far cry from Victorian literature (for example) when it comes to fidelity and chastity…

    Posted by Tony | January 31, 2011, 11:40 pm
    • Tony, of course I have to snap out of looking at the J-lit through my own lenses, it’s a different culture. I like to be honest in my reviews and what I wrote here was what I first feel about writing style of such graphical nature. I am not about to let some flaws ruin my reading experience for me, despite my rant I still rate the book at 4.5.

      Victorian literature.. really? which one?

      Posted by JoV | February 1, 2011, 12:48 am
  7. I agree with the sex ,sometimes maybe he via into what he might wanted to do when young ,thanks for the mention ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | February 1, 2011, 12:48 am
    • Stu, not a problem. I read from somewhere Haruki Murakami said in an interview that none of it is autobiographical and his life is more boring than what was depicted in the novel. But he sure got some wild imaginations though.

      Posted by JoV | February 1, 2011, 12:57 am
  8. I agree with what Tony says about sex in the Japanese novel-there are some things in the work of Junichiro Tanizaki -like Quicksand and Naomi (both written in the mid 1920s or so) that still shock us-Norwegian Wood is a fun read-my favorite of his work is Wild Bird Chronicles and I await his next one eagerly

    Posted by Mel u | February 2, 2011, 12:49 pm
    • Mel, It would be awhile for me to read his next book 1Q84. It will costs me £22.48 to buy one and I don’t spend that much money on one book, even if it’s 1021 pages thick!
      I’ll settle for all his backlist and then when it becomes affordable or available in the library, I’ll mooch it. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | February 2, 2011, 2:09 pm
  9. Hi JoV, thank you for linking to my blog :).
    I’m just going to share my favorite line from this book. Page 68, Midori quoting Toru: “Nobody likes being alone. I just hate to be disappointed”.
    Somehow to me, that just rings true to Toru’s personality.

    PS: sorry for replying a little late. You have a wonderful blog!

    Posted by astrid | February 4, 2011, 11:01 am
  10. Great review, it’s nice to read different perpective on books. I’m glad you like the book and nicely give the book 4.5 stars….I’m not that generous.

    I guess the reason I don’t like it as much as Murakami’s other book is because it’s a love story. I like his surreal story much better.

    I just got my computer fixed and choose to type review from another book instead of this one (will probably type my NW review today).

    Posted by Novroz | February 12, 2011, 11:37 pm
    • Novroz, Thank goodness your computer is fixed! This book is very different from a lot of the rest but I think has a lot more heart in it. So credit goes for Murakami attempt to explore the inner turmoil of a coming of age young man with the love of his life. Hope to read your review soon, whenever I can!

      Posted by JoV | February 13, 2011, 2:05 pm
  11. I was trying to write a decent book review of this, but I still have no guts to publish it. Not yet, maybe.
    I love this book. There are some taboo and weird scenes, like the time when Midori got naked in front of her father’s grave and showing her privates.. But overall, the story is good. I really enjoy it, I even cried the moment Toru hugged Midori inder pouring rain and told her he loved her. I used to hate Midori, though. She’s weird. Like, really weird. And unpredictable too.

    My friend agreed with you on the point of Reiko – Toru relationship: esp. the moment they had sex, my friend was furious about it. Somehow I tolerate Toru’s pain cause he just lost Naoko..
    I can’t emphasize more on how I love this book. Now I’m trying to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in my spare times, I hope I enjoy it as much as this book 🙂

    Posted by Puspa | October 19, 2011, 5:22 pm
    • Puspa,
      I didn’t quite like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. It seems to take me round the bushes and never get straight to the point, a little infuriating and pointless really. But I hope you see it differently!

      Posted by JoV | November 4, 2011, 1:23 pm


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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